Assistive tech experts: Encourage teachers to embrace growing demand for fidgets

Students in classrooms around the country are spinning, clicking, rolling, and squeezing in an effort to improve focus or decrease anxiety. An explosion in the marketing and availability of inexpensive, low-tech, hand-held fidget tools is helping these tools grow in popularity. But as demand grows, teachers are wondering how to manage the devices.

The first step: Don’t call them toys. They are fidgets or fidget tools.

“Toys are things you can throw. Those stay at home,” said Matthew Press, an assistive technology specialist in Peoria (Ariz.) Unified School District. “If you treat it like a toy, it will disappear.”

Press said he has noticed a greater demand for fidgets.

“In the old days, we used to just chew on pen caps,” he said. “Now there’s a whole market for these.”

Special educators are accustomed to low-tech assistive technology in classrooms that are often included in a child’s individualized education program or 504 plan. For many of these students, the use of these tools is an agreed-upon and managed strategy to support the child’s academic or behavior goals.

But as the fidget tools find a more mainstream audience with both general and special education students, Press and other AT experts have encouraged districts to offer fidgets for all types of learners — as long as teachers set consistent expectations for their use.

The increased use of fidgets may be the result of more students with special needs attending neighborhood schools rather than schools that have a concentrated special education program. This inclusion movement means resources for special education must be spread out to more school locations. Fidgets are easy-to-obtain devices that help satisfy the sensory needs of all types of learners, said Matt Hirn, an occupational therapist on special assignment in AT in the St. Paul (Minn.) Public School District.

Hirn emphasized that setting expectations for students’ proper use of fidgets is essential to helping ensure the devices are an asset to learning. Some expectations include that the tool must stay in the student’s hands (no tossing), must be noiseless, and must be rotated among the class so that students can have a turn to try different tools.

Here are other strategies to support the use of fidgets as a benefit — and not a distraction — in the classroom:

· Introduce the devices and the expectations for their use. Teachers could have a box or basket of fidgets in the back of the classroom and encourage students to use one if they think it would help them with learning. The fidgets could be different, offering a variety of sensory feels, such as soft, rough, or heavy, or manipulations, such as rolling, clicking, and spinning. Instead of reading a list of what not to do with the tools, encourage teachers to simply say the device needs to stay in contact with the student’s hands at all times while the student is still doing schoolwork and listening to teachers.

Teachers can put this rule on a poster in the classroom. For some students, it may be necessary to write these expectations on a note taped to the desk as a reminder, Press said.

· Don’t pay for expensive devices. Most fidgets cost less than $10 each, but Press said classroom teachers shouldn’t be expected to pay for these. Many useful tools can be handmade, such as putting hardware nuts around a pencil and securing both ends with tape so the nuts slide up and down and spin around the pencil. A pipe cleaner can be coiled and uncoiled.

More sophisticated homemade fidgets using inexpensive materials can be made with the help of an art teacher and the students. Hirn said he gets ideas for homemade fidgets from Pinterest.

· Include fidgets on an IEP. Part of the IEP development process is the consideration of AT, and fidgets are considered AT, Press said. Writing the fidget into the IEP or 504 plan creates the formal expectation that the device will be provided and its use monitored. In that sense, it may be helpful to write on the student’s plan that a fidget tool is recommended and the reason why but not name a certain brand or type of fidget.

If the favorite fidget is lost or broken, the school will need to find a replacement quickly, and it helps to have some flexibility when that occurs, Hirn said. Additionally, when a student discovers that another fidget works better, the IEP team doesn’t need to keep meeting to change the name of the fidget on the IEP or 504 plan, he said.

Kara Arundel covers special education for LRP Publications.

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